When a friend sent a compellingly blurry iPhone photo to us from the Rei Kawakubo / Commes des Garcons exhibition at the Met, we went on the hunt to learn more about the elusive woman behind the revolutionary fashion label, whose creations have changed the way we —and many others — see. Her work remains avant-garde largely because of her rigorous challenge to herself that she has maintained for decades. That is, to only ever make things that are completely NEW.
It is summed up in this rare manifesto that she gave to System Magazine in 2013. She reveals some of the paths she follows to find absolutely new paths, the goal of each collection; :
Going around museums and galleries, seeing films, talking to people, seeing new shops, looking at silly magazines, taking an interest in the activities of people in the street, looking at art, traveling: all these things are not useful, all these things do not help me, do not give me any direct stimulation to help my search for something new. And neither does fashion history. The reason for that is that all these things above already exist.
I only can wait for the chance for something completely new to be born within myself.
The way I go about looking for this from within is to start with a provisional ‘theme.’
I make an abstract image in my head.
I think paradoxically (oppositely) about patterns I have used before. I put parts of patterns where they don’t usually go. I break the idea of ‘clothes.’ I think about using for everything what one would normally use for one thing. Give myself limitations. I pursue a situation where I am not free. I think about a world of only the tiniest narrowest possibilities. I close myself. I think that everything about the way of making clothes hitherto is no good.
This is the rule I always give myself: that nothing new can come from a situation that involves being free or that doesn’t involve suffering.
In order to make this SS14 collection…
I wanted to change the usual route within my head. I tried to look at everything I look at in a different way.
I thought a way to do this was to start out with the intention of not even trying to make clothes. I tried to think and feel and see as if I wasn’t making clothes.
— Rei Kawakubo, October 2013
Read more in this unusual interview, in which Adrian Joffee, the designer’s husband who acted as interpreter, explainer, memory.
For a good overview with a video, read the NY Times piece about the Kawakubo and the Met’s retrospective.
And explore a trove of Kei Kawakubo’s clothes here.